Photo: Evan Vucci/AP. Photo shows memorandum, signed by Trump, reinstating
sanctions on Iran.
The news that Donald Trump officially decided to re-impose sanctions on Iran and withdraw from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is unfortunate but not surprising. After all, Trump has endlessly criticized the deal, pledging to scrap it. He even dropped a big hint that the deal’s end—as far as the US was concerned—was fast approaching. After he signed the last sanctions waiver, Trump announced that Iran was unlikely to receive more waivers from him. And since then, a host of academics and policy analysts have devoted time to reading the tea leaves about the future of the Iran deal, trying to determine if Trump was bluffing, engaging in tough talk with Iran’s clerics, or if he was sincere and that the pact was on life-support. It turns out Trump was honest.
Trump’s decision begs a few questions. First, why would he wreck a deal that was working, according to almost anyone who’s a serious nuclear expert? As a matter of fact, the nuclear deal, signed and sealed in 2015, was effectively constraining Iran’s ability to produce nuclear-grade fissile material and by extension a nuclear weapon. Second, why sabotage a deal with which Iran was complying? According to the IAEA, America’s JCPOA partners, and America’s military and intelligence agencies, Iran was fulfilling its end of the nuclear deal. So why? What’s going on here?
There are four things to consider.
1. Trump dislikes, actually hates, the Iran nuclear deal. He’s on record saying a number of disparaging things about the deal. Such as, it’s “weak,” “poorly negotiated,” “the worse deal ever negotiated,” “a major embarrassment,” "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” and so on. Why does he view the deal so harshly?
Hard to say, really. Cynics say that it’s part of Trump’s anti-Obama policymaking: Trump opposes and seeks to unwind all of his predecessors domestic and foreign policy accomplishments, whether Obamacare, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the Iran nuclear deal. Sounds strange to say that a sitting US president is that vindictive and that those attitudes are shaping a profound part of his presidency, but it’s possible, unfortunately. After all, there is definitely something about Obama that Trump detests. For instance, Trump’s rise to political prominence was built around his crazed effort to undermine and delegitimize Barack Obama’s citizenship and his presidency by challenging the veracity of Obama’s birth certificate. Since then, Trump has spouted a wide range of conspiratorial views about Obama, his policy team, and his bureaucratic supporters inside the US government: they wiretapped him, are connected to the investigations into his affairs, and are looking to damage his presidency (recall his repeated comments/tweets about the so-called “deep state”).
At the same time, positioning himself against the Iran deal has been politically smart for Trump. At bottom, it speaks to his base as well as much of the Republican-Conservative end of the US political spectrum. Just consider this: while the deal is relatively popular among Americans in general, the right, and especially his base, doesn’t like the deal, seeing it as a tool that only strengthens Iran, weakens Israel, and destabilizes the entire Middle East. We can debate the merits of each of these points, but ultimately it doesn’t matter whether right-leaning voters are right or wrong here. What matters most is how his they perceive the deal. And they dislike the deal.
Meantime, there is also the truth that the Iran agreement, as currently constructed, isn’t perfect, it’s flawed, and even the deal’s proponents would say as much. So, on that score, Trump does have a point. For example, the deal does have an expiration date. It doesn’t completely shutter Iran’s nuclear program. It doesn’t deal with a host of issues that Iran critics believe should’ve been broached in a wider deal with Tehran—things like Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its ballistic missile program, its vigorous support for Syria’s Assad, its antagonistic approach to Israel, it’s revisionist aims, etc.
2. Trump has political incentives to scrap the Iran nuclear pact. Trump is simply fulfilling a campaign promise. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to scrap the deal if elected. He’s now following through on his promise. Research tells us that most US presidents, most of the time, do actually keep their campaign promises. And fulfilling this promise is especially important to Trump, given how politically weak and vulnerable he is. As mentioned above, by officially reapplying sanctions on Iran, thereby jeopardizing the deal, Trump is appealing to the right, and especially his #MAGA supporters, offering them some red meat to keep them politically satisfied and in his camp. And that’s something that’s always a concern of his, not just because of his personality, but because he’s likely to be primaried come 2020. Already, names like John Kasich, Jeff Flake, and Ben Sasse, among others, have been bandied about as potential contenders for the GOP nomination. As a result, Trump needs to ensure his base is strong, on his side, and politically activated going forward.
3. The White House has a strong, prominent anti-Iran bent. Trump began his tenure in office with several anti-Iran hawks on his team. And since that time, their presence has remained strong. Yeah, Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson have been praised by mainstream types for their moderate views on global politics—of course, Tillerson was widely criticized and lampooned for his management style—and their push for diplomacy over force. But Rex has been ousted and Haley is a secondary figure in Trump’s foreign policy world. More important are General James Mattis, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton, and all three are known to have taken strident positions on Iran, believing that Iran is the biggest source of instability, violence, and terrorism in the Middle East. That then means that, arguably, the three most important US national security posts, the people who influence Trump most on foreign policy—the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Adviser—are whispering anti-Iran sentiments in Trump’s ear.
Yes, I’m including Mattis. Don’t forget that Mattis was ousted from the Obama White House because he preferred a much more hardline US stance vis-à-vis Iran. So while, as a Trump official, he has indeed advocated the US staying in the deal, I suspect he wasn’t as forceful about it as many people think. In fact, reports indicate that Mattis didn’t put up the same fight for the nuclear deal as he did back on October. Some argue that Mattis, in effect, saw the writing on the wall and decided to capitulate to Trump’s fait accompli. Perhaps. But I also suspect that, in the end, Trump’s decision loosely accords with Mattis’s worldview, and that’s in part why he push strongly for the US to remain in the deal. On Wednesday, toeing the company line, Mattis testified before a Senate subcommittee, arguing that “we have walked away from the JCPOA because we found it was inadequate for the long-term effort….We will continue to work alongside our allies and partners to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon.”
4. Trump has learned the wrong lessons from the North Korea crisis. Trump clearly thinks that coercion (sanctions, threats, aggressive tweets, and the like) brought North Korea to the bargaining table. He’s even publicly communicated this, as he’s taken credit lately for everything from North Korea participating in the recent winter Olympics to the ongoing South-North Korean detente. And so what’s happening now is that Team Trump, feeling vindicated in their approach to North Korea, are applying the same tactics to Iran. If it worked on North Korea, the logic goes, it should work on Iran.
There are lots of problems with this thinking, though. North Korea is not Iran. These are completely different countries, sitting in radically different regions, with different leaders, political systems, political cultures, economies, military/defense capabilities, national interests, trade partners, and so on. There’s no prima facie reason to believe that what worked on North Korea will work on Iran. It’s a logical fallacy. And as Trump will find out eventually, despite all the compliance troubles that North Korea has given the US in prior agreements, Iran is probably the more nebulous, complicated case. One major reason is because of Iran’s multilayered domestic politics.
But more importantly, let’s back up and assess whether Trump is right in asserting that coercion is what has caused Kim to come out of the cold, to open up diplomatically with China, South Korea, and the US. I think he’s fundamentally wrong. The US should be under no illusion that it drew Kim to talks, and that, instead, Kim’s manufactured nuclear crisis induced others to meet with him. Moreover, Kim now feels confident enough—in his domestic political standing and international position—to talk about his nuclear program.
Why? Two reasons. First, after years of consolidating his political power inside North Korea, he’s essentially “coup-proofed” his regime. He feels strong enough politically to venture out of his nation’s territory and offer to make some concessions on peace, weapons, and joint dialogue without fear of being toppled by internal opponents. Second, Kim now has a deterrent capability that’s capable of mitigating security threats from the US. The result of which means Kim doesn’t have to worry about being bullied by the US in talks. Kim’s growing arsenal reduces the negative external implications of making any concessions.
The punchline of all of this is: don’t expect a heavily pressured Iran to react in the ways that the Trump administration anticipates. Furthermore, don’t expect America’s JCPOA partners to support a sustained US-led campaign of threat and sanctions on Iran, given that they see the US, not Iran, as in violation of the nuclear deal. If anything, Trump has needlessly further alienated the US, except in the eyes of Israel and the Sunni states in the Middle East.